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Duke Students Evaluate America’s Irregular Broadband Access

Looking closely at the digital divide

Duke Students Evaluate America’s Irregular Broadband Access


As someone who grew up in a rural area and taught in a low-income, urban area prior to graduate school, Duke student Lee Foster has witnessed the lack of broadband infrastructure and lack of internet affordability.

“People of color and low-income Americans are most impacted by the lack of broadband access in America,” says Foster, a master of public policy and master of business administration student at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Fuqua School of Business. “Without systemic change, the digital divide will continue to prevent individuals without access from contributing to the ever-growing digital economy.”

As part of the Sanford School’s class, “Technology Policy for the New Administration: Antitrust, Speech and Other Emerging Issues,” Foster was part of a Duke team of seven undergraduate and graduate students who contributed to the final chapter of the National Urban League’s recently published Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion.

The national Latimer plan covers broadband access and digital equity and outlines ways to deploy broadband networks to improve internet services in underserved communities. The plan’s goal is to help remove barriers that prevent individuals from participating in the rapid growth of the digital economy. These recommendations include reexamining network performance standards, eliminating restrictions that disqualify providers who could deliver service to areas currently without broadband and providing subsidies necessary to close the availability gap.

 In their chapter, the Duke team noted that more than 20 government agencies have responsibilities under the 2010 National Broadband Plan, and accordingly, “there are inadequate mechanisms for bringing agencies together to evaluate progress and align on tactics and strategies.”

Abdur Rehman, a master’s student in interdisciplinary data science who took the class remotely from Lahore, Pakistan, says the experience made many of the issues of unequal internet access seem “front and center.”

“Many issues of racial inequity can be traced to unequal access to resources,” Rehman says. “In the domain of broadband, public policy has not connected the need for universal broadband access with higher policy goals, such as increasing opportunities for marginalized communities.”

During the class, the students learned about the technology policymaking process, as the new Biden administration sets its initial policy goals, including the role of Congress, think tanks and academics in setting and executing the agenda of a new administration.

“That understanding has shaped the way we approached our chapter of the Latimer plan, as we looked to create actionable steps that the federal government can adopt to better institutionalize progress and close the digital divide,” says Niharika Vattikonda, a junior double-majoring in economics and business administration with a science and society certificate through the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke.

Among their findings, the students supported the establishment of a federal Office of Digital Equity. The office’s staff would implement the national digital equity plans and provide updates on progress. The Duke team also suggested creating a more robust data collection framework to capture how the digital divide impacts individuals at the household and neighborhood levels.

“With this data collection framework, we can expand beyond traditional coverage maps and include information that truly captures broadband access, adoption and utilization for all Americans,” Vattikonda says.

“The students’ work was extraordinary,” adds Matt Perault, the director of the Center on Science & Technology Policy at Duke and an associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy, who taught the course. “They drove this project on their own, working independently to quickly build subject matter expertise and develop novel policy solutions.”